Epithelial cells lie on an extracellular membrane (ECM), which contains ligands that promote and support cell function. The purpose of Robert’s research is to design a synthetic compound that can mimic the function of the ECM in vivo. The ideal candidate for such is a compound that is nontoxic, flexible, and has the proper topographical and biochemical cues to promote cell adhesion, growth, and proliferation. A protein-functionalized hydrogel provides all the necessary properties to be a strong candidate for a synthetic ECM.
Poly(ethylene glycol)-diacrylate (PEGDA) is the gel of choice, and the biochemical cues that are to be incorporated into the PEGDA gel include the pegylated polypeptides acryloyl-PEG22-GGGRGDSP (RGD), and acryloyl-PEG22-PEGGRKRLQVQLSIRT (AG73), both of which promote cell migration and proliferation. Lithographically etched stencils are used to add topographical ridges as small as 400 nm to the functionalized hydrogels. Robert hopes to study the effects that these biochemical and topographical cues have on epithelial cell migration onto the synthetic hydrogel network.